Tale of Korean ‘com­fort women’ har­row­ing

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Jonathan Ball

‘YET how would death come now, if Ja­pan sur­ren­dered to­mor­row? Or the day after that? Was time not run­ning out for death to slip into her stall and carry her away?” This is the worry of Meiko (her real, Korean name is Eun-young), a Korean “com­fort woman” — one of the sex slaves of the oc­cu­py­ing Ja­panese army. Maybe Ja­pan will sur­ren­der, maybe she will be freed. Maybe this will hap­pen be­fore she dies. She can’t imag­ine any­thing bet­ter than this, than death. The only thing worse than what is hap­pen­ing to her — con­stant, bru­tal rape, 30 to 40 times per day — would be hav­ing to live af­ter­ward. Sad Penin­sula is Mark Samp­son’s sec­ond novel, after Off Book. The for­mer Win­nipeg­ger (who holds an master’s de­gree in English from the Univer­sity of Man­i­toba, in ad­di­tion to a de­gree in jour­nal­ism from the Univer­sity of King’s Col­lege) now lives in Toronto, but has clearly spent time in Korea and metic­u­lously re­searched his­tor­i­cal events, as well as Korean life. Samp­son’s Sad Penin­sula, as might be gath­ered, is a dif­fi­cult and dis­tress­ing read, es­pe­cially in its early chap­ters, dur­ing which Eun-young is im­pris­oned as a com­fort woman. In later chap­ters, it doesn’t lighten up ex­actly, but is less har­row­ing, as Eun-young at­tempts to build some­thing like a life out of the ashes of her abuse. Still, she can­not es­cape her shame or her his­tory’s shadow, and the tragedy of her past con­tin­ues to haunt her present, and haunt Korea, even as this his­tory is ob­scured. In one af­fect­ing scene, Eun-young burns a Ja­panese text­book that presents a san­i­tized ver­sion of that na­tion’s en­gage­ment with Korea. In a par­al­lel sto­ry­line Michael, a dis­graced Cana­dian jour­nal­ist, nav­i­gates the sex-drenched nightlife in mod­ern Korea, “sling­ing English like ham­burg­ers” as a lan­guage teacher dur­ing the day. In ad­di­tion to the ob­vi­ous par­al­lels — for­eign ob­ses­sion with Korean women, their treat­ment as sex ob­jects — Samp­son lay­ers in sub­tle ones. Michael barks out “no Korean” when his stu­dents speak to­gether in class in a man­ner much dif­fer­ent from, but still re­call­ing, the sup­pres­sion of the Korean lan­guage and Eun-young’s Korean name by the Ja­panese. Michael be­gins to date a woman, Jin, with a fa­mil­ial con­nec­tion that even­tu­ally su­tures the two sto­ry­lines. At the same time, Michael be­comes in­ter­ested in the Korean com­fort women and be­gins to see their story as one that he could write, in a strange at­tempt to atone for his jour­nal­is­tic sins and per­sonal fail­ures. Michael’s at­tempts to un­der­stand and ob­serve Korean cus­toms of­fers a (nec­es­sar­ily Western) per­spec­tive on Korean cul­ture, sug­gest­ing the lim­i­ta­tions of this view­point and its un­healthy fascination even as Samp­son grounds his world through care­ful at­ten­tion to de­tail. The ob­vi­ous dan­ger of a non-Korean, male au­thor step­ping into the skin of a Korean com­fort woman is also ad­dressed in Samp­son’s de­pic­tion of Michael, whose fascination with Eun-young’s story seems at once sin­cere and self-serv­ing. At the same time, it might be bet­ter not to have so much ac­cess to Eun-young’s own thoughts. When she takes sur­pris­ing ac­tions, their shock is to some de­gree limited by know­ing her mo­ti­va­tions, when the trauma of her past and its ef­fects is ar­guably not com­pre­hen­si­ble, per­haps even by her. Clev­erly, Samp­son an­tic­i­pates and ad­dresses such ob­jec­tions, turn­ing the novel’s di­rec­tion near its end. Samp­son deftly ne­go­ti­ates the vary­ing chap­ters and their view­points, sur­pris­ing us with character rev­e­la­tions with­out tip­ping into melo­drama, and forc­ing us to look more closely when we might pre­fer to turn away. Win­nipeg English pro­fes­sor Jonathan Ball (@jonathanball­com) lives on­line at www.jonathanball.com, where he writes about writ­ing

the wrong way.

Sad Penin­sula

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